Across the Atlantic Ocean, governments and businesses are taking big steps toward renewable energy. Their transition could provide lessons for Kentucky.
This is the first in a five-part series.
Flying into Germany, you can see the results of the country’s Energiewende, or energy transition, from the air. The landscape is dotted with wind turbines — some are clustered in groups, others stand alone next to a farmhouse.
This continues when I’m off the plane, traveling around the country. In the United States, wind farms are usually huge and set apart. In Germany, they’re everywhere. Turbines pop up next to coal-fired power plants or stand alone on a town’s lone hill.
Initially, for me, these are the most noticeable effects of the Energiewende. This transition has already been underway to some degree for two decades. Its two main long-term goals are to get 80 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050, and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 95 percent from 1990 levels.
And the country is moving ahead with this transition despite the fact that some regions still rely on coal mining — just like Kentucky.
This path isn’t easy, and has been made more difficult by a plan to phase out Germany’s nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy has zero carbon emissions, and in the short-term, it’s been replaced in the German electricity mix by carbon-rich coal.
So far, Germany is on track to meet the short-term goal of getting 35 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2020; this year, renewables are expected to provide about a third of the nation’s electricity. The carbon dioxide goals might prove more difficult to meet, but the German economy is growing, and jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency sectors are increasing.
But the transition has been more difficult for traditional coal mining areas.
It’s a foggy morning in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. This is western Germany’s traditional coal-producing region. Coal was mined here for both steel production and electricity. At one point, there were 40 coal mines in the small city of Gelsenkirchen. Now, there are none.
“So there aren’t any working pits anymore in Gelsenkirchen,” Anja Büttner said.
She’s head of the city’s economic development agency. “So what did that mean? We had more than 60,000 jobs which were lost because of the decline in the coal and steel mining industry.”
Gelsenkirchen’s heyday was in the late 1950s, when there were about 162,000 people working in the city. Since then, there’s been a steady loss of jobs. In 2005 — the low point — there were only 70,700 people employed in Gelsenkirchen.
Just as Kentucky’s coal mining communities are beginning to look forward to diversifying their economies away from fossil fuels, in the 1990s Gelsenkirchen officials decided to reinvent the city as a solar energy center.
Now, there’s the Wissenschaftspark, or Science Park, a bustling building that’s home to nearly 50 science and technology companies. On the roof are 900 solar panels.
Engineer Sabine Wischermann said when the panels were installed in 1996, this was the biggest rooftop solar array in the world.
“They had bigger in the open fields, but on the top of the roof it was the biggest one for this time,” she said.
Wischermann said when they’re at their peak, the Science Park’s solar panels produce about 210 kilowatt hours of electricity.
“But we don’t use the energy for the building here, we put everything back into the grid,” she said. “It’s pretty good, what we get for it.”
“There is a tradition in Germany starting in 1991, when the first electricity feed-in legislation was decided by the German Bundestag. And that basically was the starting point for everything,” said Jan Rispens, CEO of Hamburg’s Renewable Energy Cluster — a public-private partnership.
Gelsenkirchen’s Science Park, and everyone else with solar panels or wind turbines, is guaranteed a premium when they feed power back into the grid. When renewable energy wasn’t as popular, the rate was higher. It has gone down, but it’s still high enough to provide an incentive for homeowners and businesses to invest in renewable energy.
Rispens said this feed-in tariff and a policy giving renewables priority on the grid are two of the main drivers of the Energiewende.
“It guaranteed a wind farm operator that if you generate electricity, you are always allowed to feed that electricity into the grid, and you will get a financial remuneration for the coming 20 years on a certain level, and that allows you to refinance your wind farm,” Rispens said.
Or solar. Basically, if you’re creating energy on any scale from renewable sources, your energy has first priority on the grid. If it’s noon on a sunny summer day and the grid is full, coal or gas-fired electricity won’t be allowed any space. And the grid operator has to buy that power at premium.
Some of that money comes from German households.
“Because the other side of this financial feed-in tariff is, of course, that all of the electric consumers together have to pay for that,” Rispens said. “So we all face a small part of our electricity bill that is for financing wind and solar power in Germany.”
This year, a German family of three paid about 30 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, including the price of the electricity, the renewable energy surcharge, grid charges and taxes. That’s two-and-a-half times higher than the 12 cents per kilowatt hour I paid on my latest electricity bill, taking Louisville Gas & Electric’s environmental surcharges, fees and taxes into account. But Germans also have an opportunity to recoup some of those costs by installing solar panels or wind turbines, and selling that power back to the grid.
But while Gelsenkirchen’s Science Park’s solar panels are working out fine, the city has had numerous bumps as it has worked to reinvent itself.
During Gelsenkirchen’s push toward solar energy, two factories producing components for solar panels opened in the city. Sabine Wischermann points to some of these panels on the roof of the Science Park.
“Here we are seeing the old modules produced here in Gelsenkirchen,” she said.
These panels are see-through: glass studded with solar cells. They could be used in building facades, letting in light while they provide solar energy.
But Gelsenkirchen’s solar factories didn’t last. As demand for solar panels picked up in Germany and elsewhere, production moved overseas. Now, most places in Germany, including the Science Park, get their new solar panels from countries in Asia.
After decades and false starts, the transition isn’t done in Gelsenkirchen, either. The unemployment rate here is dropping, though it’s still higher than both the region and the country as a whole. So Gelsenkirchen is reinventing itself again: not just as a solar city, but as a research and tech center for all renewable energies. As coal mines in Eastern Kentucky close or idle, officials there are thinking about reinvention too. The state’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative is two years old, and politicians and residents are working to figure out what the area’s future looks like with fewer coal mining jobs.
From Bundestag to Bluegrass is a five-part web and radio series examining Germany’s energy transition — and its potential lessons for Kentucky.
And Anja Büttner is hopeful. She speaks excitedly about new restaurants opening, and several large development projects on former coal mine sites.
“And so yes, Gelsenkirchen started with coal and steel mining, then switched to solar energy. And today it’s no longer only solar energy, but once again, here we have a broad range of all sorts of renewable energies,” she said. “So today we would say, Gelsenkirchen is the city of the renewable energies.”
And after all, reinvention — like energy transition — takes time.
This story was originally published on December 7, 2015.
Photo credit: Erica Peterson
This series was supported in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.